Learn more about the Science for Progress Initiative

About the initiative

The Science for Progress Initiative (SfPI) is designed to catalyze scientific research on the scientific process. Its purpose is to produce rigorous, quantitative evidence from randomized evaluations on the most effective approaches to funding and supporting scientific research—evidence that can inform both policy and practice. SfPI launched with generous financial support from Open Philanthropy, Schmidt Futures, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

New scientific discoveries are the basis of long-term economic growth and social progress. For example, the application of modern crop-breeding techniques to agricultural challenges in the developing world as part of the Green Revolution led to the creation of high-yielding varieties that dramatically increased crop yields and income. The development of a vaccine based on messenger RNA (mRNA) was critical in changing the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the technology holds the promise of progress against diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria as well. Advances like these are possible in part because of methodical application of basic scientific methods: systematic, controlled experimentation in service of identifying the best alternative on the basis of quantified performance.

Both private and public institutions are deeply invested in supporting scientific research. The U.S. federal government is the single largest source of science funding in the world, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) playing crucial roles, along with innovative new institutions such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Private institutions like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation have also made substantial commitments to supporting targeted areas of science. These investments have led to breakthrough discoveries that have benefited the nation and the rest of the world.

But there is a growing sense that we can and must do better. The rate of growth of overall labor productivity in advanced economies has slowed substantially, by at least half between 1995-2005 and 2006-2017. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised urgent questions about how to develop the knowledge and capacity to respond more effectively to future global health crises. These and other trends have also heightened the importance of equity and representation—ensuring that we are taking advantage of the best ideas from everyone. Yet there is evidence that, if anything, it is becoming increasingly difficult for talented young scientists to obtain support for their research, as seen for example in the aging profile of NIH grantees.

One idea now gaining momentum is to build on and amplify the strength of our existing institutions by cultivating a field of metascience: that is, by turning the scientific method on itself. For example, a common question facing many grant-writing institutions is deciding which process to use to select which people or projects to fund. A scientist studying this question could collect information about the outcomes or impacts of various grants and then conduct systematic experimentation—asking, for example, whether peer review protocols lead to more or less socially valuable science relative to, say, an approach in which individual program managers have discretion to themselves select projects. 

More generally, quantitative scientific methods could be applied to a whole range of questions. What contracts, incentives, and institutions work best when funding scientific research? How can we ensure that the most talented individuals—including younger researchers, those entering science from non-traditional life and career paths, and more broadly members of traditionally under-represented groups—are not discouraged from pursuing science? How best should we encourage the diffusion of socially valuable scientific discoveries out of scientific labs and academic papers, so as to encourage innovation and economic growth? And so on. When Pierre Azoulay proposed in Nature in 2012 that we take a rigorous, scientific approach to such questions, he worried that this vision would “sound utopian to some.” But now various currents are converging and there is real momentum to make it happen.

J-PAL is well-situated to play a catalytic role in this agenda through its expertise both in conducting randomized evaluations to rigorously test new approaches, and in running research initiatives to contribute to broader bodies of knowledge. Since its founding in 2003, J-PAL has championed the use of experimental methods across a growing range of applied fields while hosting initiatives that address specific challenges—from agricultural technology adoption to governance to climate to gender and economic agency—with timely, policy-relevant research. Its founders were recently recognized with the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics for their role in these efforts. J-PAL has built deep expertise in and infrastructure for supporting research, with two decades of experience, a network of hundreds of leading social scientists and full-time staff based in dozens of countries, and substantial experience in efficiently awarding millions of dollars in research funding every year. 

Under SfPI, J-PAL will collaborate with organizations that fund and support scientific research and design science policy to produce rigorous, quantitative evidence on the most effective approaches to generating social benefits through research.

Meaningful progress in the agenda of using research to improve the scientific process is already being made by two key U.S. public institutions: the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). For example, the USPTO recently announced a major investment in a new experimental patent examination unit which will routinely conduct randomized evaluations with the goal of continuously discovering and scaling successful practices within the agency. And adding to this momentum is the fact that some private philanthropies, including the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, are making substantial investments in using data, evidence, and experimentation to improve and refine how they support science as well.

In order to support and encourage more progress in this agenda, SfPI is collaborating with the Institute for Progress (IFP), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington DC with an aligned mission and vision. Together with the Federation of American Scientists, IFP is launching a Metascience Working Group aimed at fielding, sourcing, and curating insights from the metascience community to share with participating federal agency officials and philanthropic science funders.

SfPI will seek input from leaders across a broad spectrum, spanning the academic, philanthropic, public, and private sectors. At launch, SfPI’s advisory committee includes Matt Clancy (Open Philanthropy), Patrick Collison (Stripe), Dan Correa (Federation of American Scientists), Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), Kumar Garg (Schmidt Futures), Daniel Goroff (Sloan Foundation), Bishakha Mona (Science Philanthropy Alliance), Emily Oehlsen (Open Philanthropy), Elaine Sevier (Research Theory), and Caleb Watney (Institute for Progress). Together, this group will hold the work of SfPI to the highest standards of both rigor and relevance in tackling the challenges and opportunities facing the scientific research ecosystem.

SfPI’s task is intrinsically collaborative. Its purpose is not just to produce more scientific studies, but also to contribute to the evolution of the ecosystem within which scientific studies are produced. As such, SfPI welcomes engagement with other institutions that share this objective.

Page Content